Tue Nov 28, 2023
November 28, 2023

Engels: The General of the Revolution

When Friedrich Engels died in August 5, 1895 in London, it could be read on the theoretical journal of the German Social Democracy, Die Neue Zeit, that with his death “Marx also finished to die.” There was not an exaggeration: in fact it is very difficult to separate Marx from Engels, distinguish their works or the parties that each wrote in the works signed by both. There are texts with only Marx’s signature, but were completed or complemented by Engels; there are others signed by Marx (eg, many articles written for US newspapers to increase his meager income), but in fact written directly by Engels. What is true of their works can be said also about the long common militancy. Their lives were developing in a permanent symbiosis, in a continuous exchange. Marx-Engels: it’s like a compound name for a single person.

There is no similar complicity in history. Certainly, Lenin and Trotsky were also sometimes considered a single person by the inhabitants of some of the remote villages of the immense revolutionary Russia. But the collaboration between those great revolutionaries lasted only six years while Marx and Engels worked together for forty years.

Forty years of elaboration, forty years of struggle between factions 

In their forty years of friendship, collaboration and fraternal coexistence, Marx and Engels were not limited, so to speak, to found a “theory,” what we now call “Marxism”, ie the further development of the human sciences that history has ever known. No; in these same forty years they fought and won endless programmatic battles, aiming to politically destroy all reformist, petty bourgeois and centrist trends that they met along the way, so as to promote the building of the revolutionary and internationalist party to which they dedicated their lives. 

The political battle began in the mid-forties [of the nineteenth century], against the utopian Weitling, whose positions inspired the League of the Just, the first organization of revolutionary workers with which Marx and Engels had direct contact. The two friends did not join the League of the Just because of the political distance that kept the positions that dominated it: therefore, they founded (in February 1846) in Brussels, the Communist Correspondence Committee, the first Marxist “party” of history: an organization of about twenty members that was used for factional struggle and whose success resulted in the birth of the first international organization (the Communist League), product of the political destruction of the reformist League of the Just, by the work of Marx and Engels. The new party program (written by Marx only in January 1848, but using materials prepared by Engels) is the most important political text in history, the most widespread, the one that produced changes involving the lives of thousands of women and men: The Manifesto of the Communist Party. 

At this crucial passage, the most important political work was developed by Engels: he made the political struggle in the Paris section of the League against the reformist sector linked to Weitling positions; he organized the “Marxist faction” in the June 1847 Congress, which united the most advanced sector of the League of the Just with the Correspondence Committee; and it was also Engels who prepared the organizational details of the Second Congress, held in early December 1847 in London, that would ratify the hegemony of the faction led by Marx, who will therefore be entrusted with the task of writing the party’s program. 

The objectives of this new international party are summarized in the first article of the Rules, prepared by Engels: “The aim of the League is the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the rule of the proletariat, the abolition of the old bourgeois society which rests on the antagonism of classes, and the foundation of a new society without classes and without private property.” 

Then, there were other battles in the Communist League (an organization that never exceeded 250 members), until its full dissolution a few years later. We have here no chance to sum up the whole story, so with a leap forward, we will reach a crucial moment in the history of Marxism, when, in 1864, from the unitary struggle between British and French workers, the Workers’ International Association (also known as the First International) was born. 

Contrary to what many texts release, they were not the founders of this organization: it was promoted by the British workers (the shoemaker George Odger and the carpenter William Cremer) and the French (the forger of metals Luiz Tolain and the metal burner Ernest Fribourg), but Marx and Engels quickly gained its leadership. Most of the political work in the early years lies with Marx; but when Engels could transfer to London (in 1870), he soon became the organizing secretary of the First International (and responsible for Spain, Italy and Denmark). To consolidate the hegemony of the socialist program in the International Association other years of struggle were necessary: against the Mazzinists, the Lasallian, the Proudhonists, the Blanquists, the trade-unionists, the Bakuninists. 

Anyway, it was only thanks to the lessons (positive and especially negative) that came with the practical experience of the Paris Commune, in 1871, that Marx and Engels won the war against reformism, anarchism and Blanquist centrism, to end the experience of the First International (which was, as Engels wrote years later, “a naive agreement between all factions”) and thus pave the way for a new international which, in his opinion, should be “purely communist” and founded “directly on our principles(2).” 

Engels proposed (clearly in agreement with Marx) to change the “center” of the International to the United States in the Hague Congress (1872): it was actually the beginning of the International fading (which had at that time no more than 5,000 members, even leading union structures with tens of thousands of affiliates). 

Dividing the workers movement in accordance with the program guidelines, splitting it politically to defeat reformism and centrism (which drives the bourgeois ideology inside the labor movement), and then unite the workers against the bourgeoisie based on the revolutionary program; build a revolutionary workers vanguard party, able to hegemonize vast proletarian masses and lead them to the conquest of power by the revolutionary rupture of the bourgeois state machine and replace it with the dictatorship of the proletariat. This is the lesson to be learned. No illusion in a “left unity”; no idea of uniting reformists and revolutionaries on the base of “intermediate” programs, which actually are inevitably reformist programs; no permanent front with reformists: only acceptable as an episodic tactic (and reserved for the time of action, and exclusively with the main organizations of the working class) to, at the same time, unite the struggles of the working class and unmask the opportunist leaders. This was, for forty years, the general method of Marx and Engels: the school whose teachings were developed decades after by the Bolsheviks. 

Story of a unique friendship 

Pierre Broué, in his monumental biography of Trotsky (3), writes: “Between late 1932 and early 1933, [Trotsky] had several projects: a study on the global economic situation; a job he would like to call romance of friendship, on the relations between Marx and Engels (…)“. 

Unfortunately, Trotsky did not have time to write about this friendship. But we know that for years he was fascinated by the idea. As a young man, he was conquered by the ideals of life that were transmitted by the magnificent correspondence between Marx and Engels. In his autobiography (4), he writes that the collection of letters of the two founders of scientific socialism was for him “one of the books that I needed most, and one that stood closest to me. It supplied me with the greatest and most unfailing test for my own ideas as well as for my entire personal attitude toward the rest of the world. (…) [was] a psychological revelation. Toutes proportions gardèes, I found proof on every page that to these two I was bound by a direct psychological affinity. Their attitude to men and ideas was mine.” 

It is known that Engels sacrificed every year of his youth working in an office in Manchester which he hated, in the family business, just to make enough money to keep the party they were building and maintaining Marx as a permanent employee. In his old age, after the death of Marx (1883), Engels stopped writing some of his works to complete the second and third books of Capital: the second was printed in 1885 and the third took almost ten years of Engels’ and Kautsky’s work and was not published until 1894 (5). It was not just the case to care for a good edition: in many cases, Engels had to resume work where his friend had stopped, do new research, modify, edit, cut and decipher written drafts with Marx incomprehensible handwriting: in particular, materials for the third book were little more than footnotes in various parts. In addition to this enormous work, he took care of the translation of this and dozens of other works, signed by both, or just by Marx, it didn’t matter, squinting at the texts at night to check the evidence, not omitting even a detail, writing pages of letters to ask the translators to correct minor imperfections, even just a punctuation mark. 

However, this work did not bring him trouble. We know that Engels knew and could read a dozen languages. He could write properly, not only in his native language (German) but also in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Swedish, Russian and several other languages. He dominated languages with great ease of learning: he would plunge in the study for a month, armed with grammars and dictionaries, until he would come out as a winner. It wasn’t, evidently, a hobby: learning languages was essential to direct the International and advise the sections of half the world. By what we say here, it is very difficult to accept his self-image of “second fiddle” in the orchestra conducted by Marx (6). 

We must add the fact that, besides being the author with Marx of many texts that do not bear his name; besides ensuring material support to Marx, allowing him to work “for humanity”, and being employed in a train station (he once tried to get a job, but he wouldn’t pass the test, apparently because of his illegible writing); after all, it was Engels who convinced the young Marx of the importance of the study of political economy, he was the first between the two to dive in its studies at an early age. It was largely Engels, who was also two years younger (Marx was born in 1818, Engels in 1820), to guide the study of the one who would become the author of Capital. 

An intellectual symbiosis 

When Engels was finally able to stop work in the family industry, he moved to London to work directly with Marx. This change, unfortunately, caused the interruption of correspondence between the two, but most certainly favored their intellectual production. Engels lived in Regent’s Park Road while Marx and his family lived at Maitland Park. In about fifteen minutes Engels could come to Marx’s home and initiate the odd combined work between these two exceptional brains. Eleanor’s (one of Marx’s daughters) remarks are: 

Over the last ten years, Engels would come every day to find my father. They often used to stroll together, many times they would stay home or walk in the room back and forth. Each one had his own space and traced his way and, in the corners, with a strange movement they revolved heels. They discussed a lot, philosophized about things that most men can’t even imagine, but often also would walk for a long time in silence, side by side. Or some of them would speak of what troubled him at that moment until one is in front of the other and, realizing that for the last half hour one had spoken on his own, they laughed uncontrollably. (…) “(7). 

“A shameful mistake”: the last battle against the reformists 

In 1891, provoking the anger of the leadership of the SPD [German Social Democratic Party], Engels published in Die Neue Zeit an unprecedented Marx’s text so far, whose title is now The Critique of the Gotha Program. It is a criticism of the program on which the two factions of the German labor movement would unify in May 1875: the Eisenachers (or the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Germany – SDAP,a group close to Marx, led by August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht, the father of Karl Liebknecht), founded in 1869 in Eisenach, and the disciples of Ferdinand Lassalle, grouped in the ADAV, General German Workers’ Association (8). The text remained unpublished because, due to the special laws of Bismarck against the social democracy, Marx feared harm the party and preferred to simply send it only to the faction leaders who were close to his positions. 

It is a text of particular importance because, while mercilessly criticizing the unification program to be imbued with the reformist ideas of Lassalle, it defends the essential elements of a Marxist program, irreconcilable with any reformist or centrist program. Not coincidentally, Engels decided to publish this text to start a battle against the programmatic oscillations of the SPD leadership, just when started the discussion on a new program, that would be approved by the Erfurt Congress, incorporating most of the suggestions that Engels sent to the leadership of the party and to the two main authors of the text (Kautsky for the theoretical part, Bernstein for the part related to the demands) (9). 

So Engels never stopped the fight to demarcate Marxism and differentiate it from reformism and centrism, to combat all non-Marxist theories that also were present in the new parties of the newly formed Second International (whose real foundation was in 1889, on the centenary of the Great French Revolution). Despite its absolute programmatic inflexibility, shortly before his death, he was involved by the direction of the German party in a case that would be called “a shameful mistake.” 

The electoral growth of the party (in 1890 it had half a million votes, which represented 20% of the electorate, with 35 seats in the Reichstag) and of the apparatus and officials began to feed the first reformist theories in the SPD (which Bernstein will voice shortly after Engels’ death). 

It is in this context when, in 1895, Engels is involved in a distasteful fact. First, the German party (through a letter from Richard Fischer, the party publishing director) asks Engels to soften the  “very revolutionary” tone (and technical references about the “art of insurrection”) in the Introduction that he prepared for a selection of Marx’s texts from 1850, that would be published under the title The Class Struggle in France from 1848 to 1850. Engels (although expressing irritation with the attitude of the party, that he judges too “legalistic” and subordinated to bourgeois parliamentarism) accepted the suggestion provided that only the public version would be edited (while the party leadership and cadres should read the full version), not to create problems, as new repressive laws against the Socialists were in discussion in the Reichstag. However, unbeknownst to him, before being published, the Vorwärts, the central organ of the party, by decision of W. Liebknecht published an article entitled “How to make revolutions today,” with manipulated parts of his already mutilated text, thus producing a fake. 

Engels in all his fury writes to Kautsky (letter of April 1, 1895) (10) and Lafargue (letter of April 3) (11) stating that the text was “printed without my prior knowledge and trimmed in such a fashion that I appear as a peaceful worshipper of legality at any price,” i.e. an opportunist who sees in bourgeois elections a turning point of political struggle and even the way to came to power. 

We have no space here to explain in detail this important and complex history, but we will return to it in a future article, because this episode demonstrates that the falsification of Engels’ text has  continued for decades: Bernstein (in his The assumptions of socialism, 1899), turned this fake text into “Engels’s will” and yet today we find pseudo-historians and supposed experts, all reformist supporters, who ignore the original text, found and published by Ryazanov in 1924, and continue to maintain that Engels defended the possibility to reach socialism by peaceful and parliamentary means, ie without a revolution. A complete forgery. 

But the question is also interesting because it shows that, contrary to what many people repeat, the first revolutionary to start a battle against the growing reformist deviation of German social democracy was not Rosa Luxemburg at the end of the century, when the “Bernstein debate” blew up but Engels (who, of course, saw only the first signs in his time). 

The general on horseback 

In his last years, as an old man, Engels “is still eager to join the cavalry,” as one of his most recent biographers said (12). In fact, he had spent his whole life in the front, he always preferred direct action. Among friends, he won the  nickname of “general” because, despite the clumsy attempts of the Social-Democratic leaders and the “shameful mistake”, he was an expert in military tactics, street fighting, and all that is needed to, at some point, complete the revolution with insurrection. The same Introduction of 1895, before the mutilation and forgery, was largely dedicated to the “art of insurrection”, to show the need to split the bourgeois army and win a party to the cause of revolution. His articles on the Franco-Prussian war (which precedes the Commune), published in the London Pall-Mall Gazette, have been carefully studied by Trotsky when he was given the task of building the Red Army. 

But in his last years, the nickname “general” had a broader meaning: not only designating the military expert, but the main leader of the world labor movement. A role that Engels fulfilled by writing every day dozens of letters in various languages to all leaders of different sections of the newborn International, correcting wrong positions, giving advice, developing tactics and strategies. 

But the huge knowledge of Engels in various fields of human knowledge, his intense political activism, does not mean that Engels lived the life of a Trappist monk. On the contrary. As Trotsky said, with good humor, he “bears the least resemblance to an ascetic. He was a lover of nature and of art in all its forms, he loved the company of clever and merry people, the presence of women, jokes, laughter, good dinners, good wine and good tobacco.” And Trotsky continues: “Not seldom in his correspondence do we run across references to the effect that several bottles of good wine were opened in his house to celebrate New Year, or the happy outcome of German elections, his own birthday, and sometimes events of lesser importance.” (13) 

The struggle against reformism 

Engels died of esophageal cancer, diagnosed in early 1895, when he was about to start working on the fourth book of Capital (Theories of Surplus Value), to be published by Kautsky. He did not want statues in his memory: he asked that his ashes were thrown into the sea. It was Stalinism that, in the same way it betrayed the communist program, raised statues of Marx, Engels and Lenin, to worship the dead for the sole purpose of turning these great revolutionary leaders in empty images to a harmless cult. 

It is for anything different that we remember the 120th anniversary of Engels’ death on these days. We do this to recommend to revolutionary militants, to all workers who struggle every day, young people who want to overthrow capitalism, the study of the works of this giant. We do this because we see in these months reformers like Tsipras, Varoufakis or Tsakalotos (14) and many others, more or less critical fans of Syriza government, calling themselves “Marxists” and to present the claim to reconcile the irreconcilable interests of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat as a novelty. Although, for more than a century, talking about the first “Government of Popular Front” of history (that of France, in February 1848) Engels explained that these governments, with the participation of left forces, are intended to make it easier the approval of bourgeois policies “while their presence in the government completely paralysed the revolutionary action of the working class which they claimed they represented.” (15)

So, we should return to study Engels’ works because we are convinced that this general of the revolution will still be the theoretical driver of our class to new revolutionary victories against the bourgeoisie and against reformism, this Trojan horse of the bourgeoisie in the labor movement. 



(1) Established by Kautsky in 1883, with the support of Bebel and Liebknecht.

(2) Engels expressed it in a letter to Sorge of September 12, 1874.

(3) Pierre Broué, La Revolution Perdida. Vida de Trotsky 1879-1940 (p. 734, Italian edition, Boringhieri, 1991).

(4) Leon Trotsky, My Life (1929; Mondadori, 1976, p 215).

(5) However, Engels published in a few years some of his important texts: in 1884, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State; in 1886, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (in whose appendix it is published the Theses on Feuerbach, unpublished fundamental work written by Marx in 1845); he worked on the Dialectics of Nature, and finally he wrote many prefaces to editions in languages other than German for their texts and Marx’.

(6) Engels calls himself the “second fiddle” in a letter to Becker of October, 15 1884.

(7) In: Conversations with Marx and Engels, by HM Enzensberger (1973 Italian edition Einaudi, 1977, p. 284).

(8) Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-1864) was the father of German reformism. In 1863 he founded the General German Workers’ Association. At the center of his program was the struggle for universal suffrage and the formation of workers’ production associations subsidized by the state. Lassalle died in a duel (the dispute of a woman) a few weeks before the First International was founded. The Association (strongly subordinated to the Bismarck regime) was directed after his death by Schweitzer and finally merged with the Social Democratic Workers’ Party, led by Liebknecht and Bebel.

(9) The critical remarks of Engels in the early drafts of the text are known as Erfurt Program Review, sent to Kautsky on June 29, 1891, and then for the entire leadership. The text was published in Die Neue Zeit until 1901.

(10) The letter to Kautsky reads: Dear Baron, postcard received. To my astonishment I see in Votwärts! today an extract from my “Introduction,” printed without my prior knowledge and trimmed in such a fashion that I appear as a peaceful worshipper of legality at any price. So much the better that the whole thing is to appear now in the Neue Zeit so that this disgraceful impression will be wiped out. I shall give Liebknecht a good piece of my mind on that score and also, no matter who they are, to those who gave him the opportunity to misrepresent my opinion without even telling me a word about it …

(11) The letter to Lafargue reads: … Liebknecht just played me a nice trick. He has taken from my Introduction to Marx’s articles on France of 1848-50 everything that could serve him to support the tactic of peace at any price and of opposition to force and violence, which it has pleased him for some time now to preach, especially at present when coercive laws are being prepared in Berlin. But I am preaching these tactics only for the Germany of today, and even with an important proviso. In France, Belgium, Italy, and Austria these tactics could not be followed in their entirety and in Germany may become inapplicable tomorrow …

(12) See Tristram Hunt, The Revolutionary Life of F. Engels. This is the biography written by a lecturer that Engels would have called “a real Philistine”: full of mistakes on Marxism, but nevertheless an enjoyable text with many stories about the protagonist.

(13) Leon Trotsky, “Engels’ Letters to Kautsky,” October 1935 (article published in The New International, January 1936).

(14) An IrregularMarxist is the title of a book by Varoufakis. Without any particular originality, the former minister of Tsipras wants to combine Marxism with Keynesianism. His substitute in the Ministry of Finance, Euclid Tsakalotos, was described by the press as “a quiet Marxist”.

(15) Letter from Engels to Turati, January 26, 1894.


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